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13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Thu September 19, 2013
Richard Dawkins' Delightful Memoir Dilutes The Poison
On Tuesday, famed evolutionary scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins' new book — a memoir called An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist — will be published here in the United States. (It came out in the United Kingdom on September 12.) Spanning the years from Dawkins' birth in Kenya in 1941 to the publication of his bestseller The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book tells the story of how Dawkins fell in love with learning and then science.
Dawkins is a controversial public figure. Last year, when I interviewed Dawkins at NPR's Washington headquarters, I found myself in keen disagreement with his style of religion-bashing. And only just last month he caused a furor when he tweeted this message:
So, I approached An Appetite for Wonder with some trepidation. Indeed, the book was lampooned in The Guardian's "digested read" feature as boastful and arrogant. But what I discovered was something quite different. It's a memoir that is funny and modest, absorbing and playful. Dawkins has written a marvelous love letter to science.
With that in mind, here are 10 highlights from An Appetite for Wonder:
10. Evocation of his early family life in Africa and, later, England. His "ceaselessly creative" father and language-loving mother lighted the fires of curiosity about the world in a small boy. Young Richard loved imaginary pretend games: "Mummy, I'm an owl being a water wheel."
9. The diaries of his mother Jean. Dawkins quotes from these with disarming openness. When Dawkins was 5, he and his parents visited home by way of a post-war sea voyage. Jean wrote:
When we got to England [Richard] was quite a sad little boy, and had lost all his bounce. While we were looking out of the ship at Liverpool docks in the dark rain ... he asked wonderingly, "Is that England?" and then quickly asked "When are we going back [to Africa]?"
8. The English (and English-abroad) boarding school experience. Dawkins was first sent to boarding school at age 7. His abiding regret at not doing more to stop the boy-to-boy bullying he witnessed at his schools is emotional and moving.
7. Care for animals. In describing an opportunity to assist in the dissection of a giraffe, Dawkins notes that the animal "had unfortunately died a few days earlier." With that single word, "unfortunately," he echoes a minor but welcome theme of compassion for animals that runs throughout the book.
6. The roots of atheism. Dawkins traces his trajectory from a boy who embraced Christianity early on to a teenager who became "militantly anti-religious" at about age 17.
5. That modesty I mentioned. Not only does Dawkins generously credit scores of his teachers, tutors and colleagues, he scrutinizes his own faults. "I'm not a good observer," he writes. "I'm not proud of it."
4. "The centre of my being." Dawkins' love for Oxford, its Zoology Department, and his tutor Niko Tinbergen (who later won the Nobel Prize) and fellow pupils (and later, fellow teachers) shine with the pure heady excitement of doing science.
3. The Selfish Gene. We get a fresh (to me) glimpse of how early the basic "immortal genes" concepts were laid down in Dawkins' thinking when he quotes from his 1966 lecture notes, prepared for his own undergraduate students.
2. Chickens who drink and flies who self-groom. The research undertaken by Dawkins in his pre-Selfish Gene days is exciting in itself — not about chicken and fly behavior so much as about exploring "methods of thinking."
1. The science. I'll say it again: Dawkins has written a love letter to science, and for this, the book will touch scientists and science-loving persons.
Now, it's not that I fully embrace all of Dawkins' ideas. How many anthropologists take his people-are-programmed-by-genes rhetoric as scientific truth? Yet the point of memoir reading isn't to just nod sagely in agreement as a great man tells his story. So I do have an objection to the book and it's a matter of style, rather than ideas.
Happily immersed in some past period of Dawkins' life, readers will be jarred from time to time by the bitter outbursts that pepper the text. They're missives from the Dawkins of today who delights in insult mode, as in this example:
I have recently had occasion to look at The Book of Mormon, fabricated by a nineteenth-century charlatan called Smith ...
What do these poisonous passages add to the book? Nothing good. They are mercifully few, however.
Sometimes Dawkins manages to be off-base without being off-putting. Dawkins repeatedly laments his own childhood gullibility, for example his readiness to believe that a pet goes to pet heaven upon its death. And when he runs with this theme, we may throw up our hands at his conclusion — and want to rescue our children from his Yuletide ventures at early science education — and still enjoy his even tone:
Why do adults foster the credulity of children? Is it really so obviously wrong, when a child believes in Father Christmas, to lead her in a gentle little game of questioning? How many chimneys would he have to reach, if he is to deliver presents to all the children in the world? How fast would his reindeer have to fly in order that he should finish the task by Christmas morning? Don't tell her point blank that there is no Father Christmas. Just encourage her in the unfaultable habit of skeptical questioning.
Continuing on from where this present volume leaves off, book two of Dawkins' memoir is slated to appear in 2015. This later period of Dawkins' life is almost guaranteed to bring more heat to the story because it includes his atheist-firebrand years. For now, we have an enchanting memoir to read, one that I recommend highly.